Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
It’s officially spring, which is always a relief in Chicago, but the threat of World War III, the stubborn persistence of the pandemic, and the new flood of horrifying Republican anti-trans legislation more than justify continuing the Winter Blues series for a few more entries. No underrecognized Chicago blues artist deserves a spot in the series more than talented and groundbreaking singer Lil Green, who achieved stardom in the 1940s but has been largely forgotten since her premature death in 1954.
When Green is remembered these days, it’s usually for recording the version of Kansas Joe McCoy’s “Why Don’t You Do Right?” that inspired Peggy Lee’s massively popular and influential cover. Her early life is hard to say much about: some sources say Lillie Mae Johnson (aka Lillian Green) was born December 22, 1919, near Port Gibson, Mississippi. Her headstone places her birth in 1905, though, and she listed 1910 on her social security application. Meanwhile, census records suggest the most likely year is 1901.
In any case, Green grew up in a religious family in the College Street area of Port Gibson, and her first musical experience was singing gospel in church. She and several siblings left the town at a young age after their parents, Elias Johnson and Ida Crockett, passed away. She came to the Windy City in the 1930s, but it’s hard to say how she was “discovered” —depending on whose account you trust, she was performing at a revival meeting, working as a singing waitress, singing along to records at a department -store job, or hopping onstage for a number at a south-side club after her friends convinced the bandleader to let her perform. Any or all might be true!
No matter how Green got her start, by the mid-30s she was performing in popular Chicago nightclubs. She teamed up with blues guitar god Big Bill Broonzy, and their repertoire also included jazz, gospel, and pop. As the Mississippi Blues Trail marker honoring her puts it, “Green exuded youthful sweetness and charm yet retained a sultry, streetwise allure in her high-pitched delivery. Upon meeting her, one writer described her as ‘disarmingly down to earth.’ ”
Writers do not tend to characterize an artist as down-to-earth unless they have some reason to expect her to be arrogant or aloof. It’s probably safe to assume, then, that this particular writer met Green after 1939 — that was the year her exquisitely sensual voice caught the attention of famous scout and producer Lester Melrose, setting her on a path to success.
Melrose worked for RCA Records and its subsidiary Bluebird. In 1940 Green had her first session for Bluebird, backed by Simeon Henry on piano, Ransom Knowling on bass, and Broonzy on guitar. That session produced two singles, including the titillating best-seller “Romance in the Dark,” which Green cowrote with Broonzy. Her relationship with Bluebird lasted till 1945 and produced 15 more singles, the most successful of which was her hit 1941 version of “Why Don’t You Do Right?”
Broonzy, Henry, and Knowling backed Green on the 14 Bluebird records she released between 1940 and 1942, as well as at innumerable gigs in southern country juke joints. Green soon outgrew this scene, though the lore that surrounded her suggests she had other reasons to leave it: according to RH Harris, leader of legendary gospel group the Soul Stirrers, she eventually did prison time because of her involvement in a nightclub killing during this period. (On the other hand, Broonzy recalled her as a sweet, deeply religious woman who never smoked, drank, or said an unkind word.)
Because Green’s success was curtailed by racial barriers, she was vulnerable to a setback that commonly befell popular Black artists at the time: a more marketable white artist covered her biggest song. Peggy Lee, then performing with Benny Goodman and his orchestra, listened to Green’s “Why Don’t You Do Right?” so often in her dressing room that Goodman asked her if she wanted to sing it. Their 1942 take on the tune eclipsed Green’s version, becoming a vastly bigger hit the following year. (It’s since become something of a standard — Jessica Rabbit even performs it at the Ink & Paint Club in the 1988 movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit.)
All the same, the success of Green’s own “Why Don’t You Do Right?” allowed her to graduate from gigs in small clubs to tours with bigger bands. As World War II ended, RCA retired the Bluebird imprint, so Green’s singles in 1946 and ’47 appeared with “RCA Victor” on their hub labels. She shifted to horn-heavy backing groups with a more pop-jazz sound — trumpeter Howard Callender, also a romantic partner of Green’s, played on the majority of those RCA singles.
For most of the 1940s, Green enjoyed top billing almost wherever she went, though she was confined largely to the Black theater circuit. She appeared at the Regal Theater in Chicago, the Howard Theater in DC, the Royal Theater in Baltimore, the Apollo in Harlem, and the Paradise in Detroit. She only occasionally played to white crowds, including at New York venues Café Society and the Blue Angel, at Chicago’s short-lived Downtown Theater (formerly the Rialto), and at segregated southern venues with “whites only” seating areas. Green often toured with larger ensembles, such as the orchestras led by Tiny Bradshaw, Milt Larkin, and Luis Russell.
By 1950, Green’s record sales were beginning to slip, but she continued to tour. She signed to Atlantic in 1951, just as it started to produce major hits by the likes of Joe Morris and Ruth Brown, but that boon was bittersweet — Green had developed uterine cancer, and her health was failing. She recorded just two singles for the young label, only one of which was released during her lifetime.
Green cut back on road gigs, though she still performed at the Regal and smaller local venues, as well as at other midwest clubs such as Detroit’s Flame Show Bar. Before the cancer could do her any more harm, though, she died of bronchopneumonia in Chicago on April 14, 1954. She was laid to rest in Gary, Indiana, where her older brother Scott worked in a steel mill.
It’s especially sad that Green missed the blues revival of the 60s, when she doubtless would’ve been “rediscovered.” Still, album-length compilations devoted to Green’s work have been appearing for more than 50 years — including comps titled Romance in the Dark in 1971, 2003, and 2017. Let’s hope this keeps up, so that the music of this unique and soulful artist will never be entirely lost.
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.
The Real McCoys
A tribute to prewar bluesmen Joe and Charlie McCoy will help buy headstones for their unmarked south-side graves.